Tradition and Authority in Pre-Modern and Early Modern Persian Literature

This panel was compiled by the Conference Program Team from independently submitted paper proposals


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In the period 1410–14, a large number of complex and high-quality compendia of Persian texts was dedicated to the contemporary Timurid ruler over Fars, Iskandar b. ʿUmar Shaykh. Although the anthologies’ colorful illustrations and increasingly also their non-illustrative paintings are subject to art historical investigations, the sophisticated interplay of contents, forms and illumination remains largely unstudied. This paper seeks to examine a group of qaṣīda poems that recurs in these anthologies. The poems are, besides by contentual features, typically organized by their formal characteristics: Some are shaped as a tree or a circle; Others are composed with regard to specific artistic devices such as the tajnīs (poems employing homonyms) or as a maḥdhūf (poems omitting a certain element such as diacritical dots or the letter alif). Only after these criteria, the qaṣīdas are grouped by their authors – some of whom are barely known to today’s scholarly work. The special characteristics of the handwritten and illuminated manuscript demonstrate themselves to the full in these anthologies: forms are freely drawn into set jadwal-frames, colors have been applied to highlight certain words or devices, and figurative and non-figurative paintings embellish the qaṣīdas but might just as well add up to their meaning. For the first time, this group of qaṣīdas will be compared to both earlier and later compendia (esp. the Muʾnis al-Aḥrār fī Daqāʾiq al-Ashʿār compiled in 1341 by Badr al-Dīn Jājarmī and the seventh book of Qabūl Muḥammad’s Haft Qulzum, lithographed in Lucknow in 1822 and shortly thereupon translated into German by Friedrich Rückert). The close examination of text and layout will shed light upon selection and organization processes, the artistic devices used, traditions in the display of the qaṣīdas, and the inventions of the workshop of Iskandar.

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Tazkira-writing is one of the most significant genres of Persian literature in the 17th-19th centuries CE. This literary genre had flourished in the early modern Safavid-Mughal era and continued until the Qajar period. Tazkira writers took advantage of older as well as contemporary tazkiras as a primary source for their work, relying on information from earlier works for compiling biographical information about prior generations of poets.
In addition to providing biographical information and selections of poetry from the poets, some of the literati such as Khan Arzu, Azad Bilgrami, Valih Daghistani and others also indulged in presenting their critical opinions about various literary genres, including other tazkiras (which had been used as sources). Reading these texts precisely and relying on their own literary knowledge and taste, they criticized, analyzed, and considered the value of various tazkiras. The tazkira-writers criticized each other’s works with regards to several aspects, such as method of writing, selection and judgement of poetry, accuracy of information, personality, and other factors. This criticism amounted to a form of dialogue between contemporary tazkira¬-writers.
By considering tazkira-writers to be the earliest literary critics in the Persian literary tradition, in this article I explore how relying on ethnic and religious bias, individual beliefs and taste, and personal feelings of superiority negatively impacted or constrained tazkira¬-writers in their works. This paper also compares the critical approaches found in Indian and Iranian tazkiras, identifying salient differences and points of convergence. I illustrate the critical views tazkira-writers held about one another, and argue that tazkiras of the Safavid-Mughal era were more critical than in the subsequent Qajar era through analyzing generic changes that took place in both periods. Finally, I also take up the question of whether the criticism presented in these tazkiras can ultimately be considered precise and scientific according to modern standards, or whether they are more shaped by personal issues and individual taste.

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The body of research on the Persian ‘tazkirah of poets’ genre has seen noteworthy growth in recent years. This trend has been made possible in part by Iranian scholars’ publication of critical editions of a number of important tazkirahs, which were previously available only in manuscript or in unreliable printings. (The ‘Arafat al-‘ashiqin of Taqi Awhadi is one prominent example.) Researchers use tazkirahs to address questions of various kinds, including the following: tracing the reception of a given poet across generations (e.g., Losensky’s book on Baba Faghani); and studying the development of theories of language and aesthetics in Persianate societies (e.g., Arthur Dudney’s recent dissertation on Khan Arzu).

One aspect of tazkirahs that remains understudied is their connection to the ‘canon’ of classical Persian poetry. Was there a group of poets—especially from the period before the 15th century CE, when modes of literary patronage and production began to shift in earnest—whose works were considered to have attained canonical status? If so, how might the acknowledgment of that status be reflected in tazkirahs? This paper suggests that by the late Timurid period, there was something akin to a canon of earlier authors, at least in a limited sense. Focus is placed on two ways in which a literary biographer may reveal the acknowledged status of certain poets: selection and omission. In the former category, we have the Baharistan of Jami (1487), which presents a small group of poets whose works are expected to be well-known to any member of polite society. In the latter category, we have the Tuhfah-i Sami of the Safavid Sam Mirza (ca. 1550), which discusses only contemporary and recent poets. Prominent figures from earlier generations, such as Hafiz, are mentioned casually throughout the Tuhfah, but the impression is that they need not be addressed specifically, since their status is entirely secure. From both sides—selection and omission—we see reinforcement of the idea of a ‘canon’ of Persian poetry.

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The response poem is a useful tool in analyzing the shifting attitudes of poets to their predecessors, and critical models initially developed for European imitatio can shed still more light on the nature of the Persian response poem. These models range from the all-encompassing statement of Harold Bloom—“Every poem is a response to another poem”—to Thomas Greene’s multiple levels of imitation that specify the hermeneutics of imitators. In the middle of these two are many others: Lyne, for example, describes imitation and allusion as “designed intertextuality” that admits other voices into a text, and Barchiesi suggests that models leave traces within the imitative text that can both lead to a deeper reading of the imitative text and guide the reader to a new interpretation of the model text.

This paper examines a series of response poems linking some of the most prominent poets of the Persian tradition from the 8th/14th to the 11th/17th centuries: Hāfez, Jāmī, Mohtasham, and Sā’eb. The model ghazal by Hāfez is a praise poem dedicated to Sultan Ghiās al-Dīn, and each subsequent poet manipulates the panegyric nature of the model to reflect his own social position within the patronage system. These four poets each fall into distinctive periods of the Persian poetic tradition, and rarely does one consider them in terms of poetic continuity. Even more rarely are Jāmī and Mohtasham, best known for romances and religious strophic poems respectively, considered primarily as authors of panegyric ghazals.

This paper analyzes the model and response poems of these four poets through the critical lens of criticism on European imitatio in order to explore the dialogue that develops both between poets and between poet and society. Through this study emerge several patterns, not only of the shifts of attitude from the conservatism of Jami to the fresh style of Sā’eb, but also of the changing nature of poetic patronage and its effects on poetic composition.